Bill Rachal did his homework. When he moved into his home off of Hunter Mill Road about seven years ago, he researched the zoning and land use patterns in the surrounding area. "I thought I understood the area where I was buying a home," Rachal said.
It was that understanding, he thought, which had brought him to a meeting concerning the future of a large chunk of land near his home. "I was interested in the process since the recommendations will affect my life and that of my family," he said.
The June 7 meeting at South Lakes High School was the first of a special study task force formed by the Board of Supervisors. The 20-member task force, comprised of citizens living in Hunter Mill and Dranesville magisterial districts, has been set up to study a 314-acre piece of land just north of the Dulles Toll Road. The area stretches along Sunset Hills Road and is bounded by the Lake Fairfax Business Center on the west, to Golf Park at Hunter Mill Driving Range, including the driving range, on the east and Lake Fairfax Park to the north.
The need for a study grew out of a nomination made during the Area Plans Review process. During this process, a group of landowners proposed that about 226 acres, much of which is owned by Vienna-area resident John Thoburn, be re-planned to allow an increase in residential density.
The area is currently zoned to allow for one house for every two acres. The proposal called for increasing the base density from a maximum of one house per 2 acres to three-four houses per acre, a possible eight-fold increase.
It further proposed that if the area should achieve a "substantial consolidation" for a joint development, the density could be increased to a maximum average density of five-eight houses per acre, a possible 16-fold increase.
The proposal has been put on hold indefinitely so that the broader area could be studied. One reason for the creation of the task force, said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), was so that other options can be considered.
THE TASK FORCE could determine that the level of density proposed in the nomination is a good one. It could also recommend a higher or lower level, or say that no change should be made.
During the Area Plans Review process, the nominations are usually given a yes or no decision, and alternatives are not considered. "Rather than debate one position or the other, we have a dialogue," Hudgins told the task force.
Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville) stressed the need that the members of the task force come into the meeting with an open mind. "There’s no prejudiced outcome," she said.
Additionally, noted Fred Selden, director of the Planning Division of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning, Area Plans Reviews are conducted in each district where this area spans two districts.
Additionally, Selden said that the task force is permitted to consider a different range of issues, for example, this current group can analyze the wisdom of realigning Sunset Hills Road. "The latitude is broader and it’s designed to look at a whole range and complexity of issues," Selden said.
Although this area has been reviewed multiple times, stretching back to the 1970s and has not been changed, Selden also encouraged the committee to have an open mind. "If you aren’t open to change, then you are not being faithful to the whole concept of reviewing the Comprehensive Plan."
The task force was then introduced to Patricia Stevens, who will be moderating the meetings. Rather than have a chair or co-chairs from the surrounding community, Hudgins and DuBois said they expect feelings to run high in the meeting and that it would be best if the moderator be a third party with no stake in the outcome. "We have made the determination that we thought it would be better if it was facilitated," DuBois said.
MEMBERS OF the task force sought to define their role. Gene O’Brien, a task force member, asked what weight their findings will have and if their decisions will be binding. "What is the impact that this is going to have?" O’Brien asked.
Selden answered that the recommendations will not be binding. The Task Force will serve an advisory function to both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
He stressed that the decisions are given a lot of weight by those bodies. "They are by no means inconsequential," he said.
Other members sought definitions of how broad a scope they can consider. Whether or not the task force can look at potential impacts on the surrounding area, such as the number of students that might be added to area schools if the density is increased, or the additional road congestion that could occur from more houses.
Selden explained that the group might determine a particular school may need to be expanded if the density were to be increased. However, that should not necessarily be a factor in deciding if higher density is warranted in the Comprehensive Plan.
The task force, he said, should not be in the business of recommending that a specific facility be expanded in exchange for higher density.
Those sorts of decisions should be made during the rezoning process, which is where land developers make contributions to mitigate the conditions that will result from an increased density — commonly called proffers. "You can’t presume to know today all of the things you might need to know, particularly when you come to the rezoning," Selden said.
Selden explained that if the task force should determine that the Comprehensive Plan needed to be amended, planning staff will draft a document that will detail the proposed changes.
Many details of the task force’s operation were left to be decided at a future meeting. For example, the amount of oral public input which the task force will allow. Only a few of the meetings will likely offer an opportunity for community members to speak and those opportunities will also likely have a time limit. Of course, the task force is comprised entirely of community members.
An e-mail address will be set up so that area residents can provide written comments. The task force recommendations are due in December.